Squirrel Peg in a Round Hole

Mets must maximize McNeil's potential moving forward, and Jeff's also gotta hit

Image credits: Chris Simon

On the surface, the New York Mets may appear to have a conundrum on their hands in the form of Jeff McNeil’s future. That could be the case, but there’s a whole mess of layers to this cake and, as we know, these things are never that easy.

After scraping the bat-to-ball stratosphere over his first few seasons in the big leagues, the California product’s comet came crashing down hard in 2021. Through 112 games played this year, McNeil’s hitting just .255/.320/.369 with a sub-average and entirely uncharacteristic 95 wRC+.

There have been sporadic high points (.285/.349/.397 in 166 PA from his return from the IL on June 21 through August 13; .361/.395/.583 over 38 PA since the start of the Yankees series Sept 10), but, for the most part, this has not been Jeff McNeil.

And we demand his return posthaste.

Over 248 games from his MLB debut in July 2018 through the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign (a season-and-a-half, give or take), McNeil’s .319/.383/.501 line with 30 homers, 63 doubles, 137 runs scored, a 12.0% strikeout rate, 140 wRC+, and 8.6 wins above replacement (FanGraphs) didn’t just wow; it set the pace.

The man they call Squirrel led the majors in batting average over that span, his strikeout rate was seventh-best, his on-base percentage (11th), wRC+ (tied for 11th with teammate Brandon Nimmo), and fWAR (37th) were among the game’s best, and his 18.3% called-strike-and-whiff rate (CSW%) was tops in MLB.

McNeil was and arguably still is, big picture, on an exciting trajectory. Though it’s tough to look past the nightmarish campaign he endured this season.

“If done it for three years, done it for over 1,000 at-bats,” McNeil said this week. “I know I’m a very good hitter. A few hundred at-bats doesn't make me a bad hitter at all. I feel like I’ve taken some very good at-bats this year and haven’t just quite had the results that have been there in the past.”

Injuries may have been a factor in McNeil’s subpar 2021 (he missed five weeks with a hamstring strain suffered at Tampa Bay in early May), and the upswing he’s currently enjoying could certainly have its benefits heading into the offseason (thinking about how you’re gonna break out can’t be a great way to spend the holidays), but what’s next for Jeff McNeil?

Entering his first arbitration-eligible season this offseason with his initial foray into free agency still down the road a bit (after 2024), there’s no reason to think McNeil won’t continue to be a fixture in Flushing for the foreseeable future. But, again, where does he fit?

There’s no discounting his potential as a hitter with a respectable track record to prove his worth in that category, as noted above. That’s always gonna play, just as long as he’s not lost in any more doldrums for extended periods of time.

Defensively, McNeil is an average-to-above-average fielder at multiple positions. The lone negative outs above average metric he’s posted at an infield position is -2 OAA over nine games at third base in 2020. In 2021, he’s got positive marks across the board (+1, LF; 0, 3B; +4 2B).

Super Utility Squirrel remains a thing. And good thing, because that’s a role McNeil could potentially be headed for moving forward.

If the Mets decide to make a run at bringing back Javier Báez and succeed, all signs would point to Báez as the team’s everyday second baseman.

If the Mets choose to bring in a true center fielder this offseason, maybe a Starling Marte or someone of that ilk, moving Michael Conforto (we still expect him to accept the qualifying offer, so let’s just assume he does) and Nimmo into the corners, McNeil may be out of the rotation there, too.

Filling gaps at third base with a top-flight hot corner pickup has been a much-discussed option among the fan base. Options range from the high end (Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado if he opts out) and look solid going down the line (Eduardo Escobar, Kyle Seager, Jose Ramirez).

With J.D. Davis looking more like an extremely viable bench player as opposed to a starter, that’s an option that holds weight.

McNeil getting a look at third should certainly happen, but the defensively-apt, contact-happy Flying Squirrel roaming around the diamond seems like just as sure a bet.

And with the designated hitter expected to be re-incorporated back into the National League, it lengthens the Mets’ roster even further, allowing for Báez to get a spell at second, or whoever’s in left or at third to take a day, giving McNeil a clear path to consistent playing time and comfortability around the horn.

All good things. There are still a bunch of decisions for the Mets to make this offseason, but this one seems like one of the easier tasks on the docket. We shall see.

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